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How will public spaces change after COVID-19

While millions of Canadians remained indoors during COVID-19 shutdowns, our public spaces and how we use them began to subtly shift. In order to meet new physical distancing rules, we’ve also altered nearly everything about how we move through the city, how we work, and how we spend our leisure time. But this moment of restructuring could also be an opportunity, and by pushing these changes just a little bit further we could use COVID-19 as the catalyst to make our public spaces healthier and more inclusive long into the future.

Public transportation was one of the first public spaces to see a sharp decline in use during the pandemic as millions of Canadians stayed home and forwent their typical daily commute to instead work from home. Ridership on Toronto’s TTC was down a staggering 80 per cent in April, although it’s expected to rise to 50 per cent of normal numbers by October. To combat the risks of crowding, city governments will need to invest in their transit systems by adding more terminals, altering seating arrangements, and making other adjustments. To push these changes even further cities could begin providing free fare to all riders — something that an estimated 100 cities in the world have already done — to ensure that transportation is accessible to lower-income riders and to incentivize transit use over car ownership, curbing greenhouse gas emissions and making our cities healthier and safer.

At the same time that some spaces have been seeing declines in use, others have been seeing significant boosts. A Park People survey of over 1,600 Canadians found that 55 per cent of respondents said that their park use had increased during COVID-19 and 82 per cent said that parks had become important to their mental health. Bike lanes have been expanded in cities across Canada in an effort to reduce crowding on public transit and reduce potential congestion on roads as well. Increased usage of greenspaces and more cyclists on the road are both examples of positive shifts in lifestyle that improve the physical and mental health of residents; and with the right policies, these changes could stick. 

The 2020 Declaration for Resilience in Canadian Cities, written by urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat, argues that COVID-19 and it’s recovery period represents “a window to act” and implement changes in Canada that could “kickstart our journey toward more accessible, equitable, sustainable, and resilient cities.” The plan takes a holistic view at how cities function, looking to ensure that the most vulnerable — who have been hardest hit by the pandemic — are being well-served by city planning. 

People with disabilities, those who are immunocompromised, and the elderly are too often overlooked when it comes to thoughtful city design, which means that countless Canadians are excluded from participating in society because their needs are not being accommodated. With an increasingly aging population (by 2036 seniors are projected to comprise about 25 per cent of the Canadian population) we’ll need to consider how people who have different abilities and needs can be best served by public services, infrastructure, and policies. 

People with disabilities have been advocating for many of the methods that have now become much more widespread during the pandemic, including telecommuting and flexible schedules. Before COVID-19, employers were slow to make accessibility a priority, but because of the pandemic, we’re seeing just how possible these changes are.

At the same time that we’re advocating for changes like these, we also need to stay attuned to the complex ways that policies fit together and who they impact. Jay Pitter, an urbanist and placemaker, has urged us not to overlook those living in “forgotten densities” like homeless shelters, senior care homes, or public housing — all of whom are struggling during the pandemic due to inadequate and unsafe infrastructure that puts them in close proximity to other people. As calls for physical distancing increase and density is seen as a risk to disease prevention, it’s important to consider the needs of the many Canadians who, through a variety of circumstances, are not able to inhabit their living spaces or local communities safely. 

“Instead of being fearful of increased anti-density bias,” writes Pitter in an April article for Azure magazine, “we need to apply what we know toward a good urban density framework. This framework should be evidence-based and overlap with social determinants of health, such as food security, race, gender and poverty, while being anchored in a strong equity-based placemaking paradigm.” Not only that, but policymakers need to consult meaningfully with both experts and community members in order to make these changes, Pitter states. “Fully undertaking this scope of work is not possible during a pandemic. But we can certainly advance the process instead of diminishing the suffering of those experiencing density-related health challenges,” she writes. 

Despite the limitations we’re currently experiencing, there are still plenty of reasons for optimism. Changes that once seemed impossible before the pandemic are already beginning now, and by applying the knowledge we have and truly listening to the needs of the most marginalized, we could take advantage of the momentum created so far and transform our cities, green areas, and workplaces so they are more inclusive for all.